Category Archives: Classroom Culture

Author’s Chair

 

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Every educator has the ‘moment.’ I wish I had a cute name for the ‘moment’ that would make it sound both adorable and relatable – but I don’t. I’ve never named it beyond just the description of it to loved ones and close teaching friends and confidants – but I’m betting you know the moment. That moment where you find yourself googling what other careers you can pursue with a degree in English or Education that isn’t teaching. 

You still love the kids. 

You still love the work. 

But, man, has the work felt like work recently. 

And that’s the moment. When you’re drained and empty and tired and the best way forward is a little bit of fantasy: I could just start an Etsy business and live off of that – sure, I don’t really make anything people are interested in buying, but I could. I  could just take a year off and write the great American novel – sure, I don’t have any ideas for that novel, just some opening pages and some really, really vague outlines (in the vein of stuff happens to people and it’s awesome), but I could. I could just find a job doing data entry somewhere – sure the nine to five would be sooo boring and I hate numbers and data and I’m not sure I could fake even a little bit of joy for that process, but I could… maybe…

I found myself here in 2014, and a teacher friend suggested I apply for Summer Institute with my local Writing Project. This experience was and still is a literal life-changing event for me. Finding a group of like-minded teachers who wanted to deeply invest in a research based development of their practice through yearly inquiry projects was transformative. Finding opportunities to both learn from other teachers who were still in the classroom as well as opportunities to teach other teachers was and is encouraging and growth-inspiring. Five years later I’m still active with MTWP and still continuing to grow and learn from that community. 

Currently on maternity leave, I’ve found myself thinking about my practice a lot. I thought I would spend a portion of this time at home -in between feedings and diaper changes – worried about my students or the interim or how the class room was going without me. And, sure, those thoughts have crossed my mind a time or two, but mostly when I’ve thought about school at all I’ve found myself thinking about my practice in a macro-sense from the beginning of my career until now: what are my “greatest hits” if you will.

When I taught sophomores several years ago, I incorporated a game-changing strategy I learned at MTWP: author’s chair. Every two or three weeks, students would share their writing with the entire class. The process was simple.

Students would sign up to share their writing with the class at least once a nine weeks. Usually we would share every second or third Friday, and the sharing would take the entire 45 minutes. The sharing student would move to the front of the room and sit in my chair, stand behind the podium – whatever made them comfortable – and then share a piece of writing. They could share whatever they liked – a polished piece, something from their notebooks, something they wrote just for this occasion. The point wasn’t WHAT they shared but THAT they shared. After they read their piece, the class would simply, in unison, say, “Thank you for sharing.” And the next student would move to the front of the room to share. I would share as well – often sharing bits and pieces of my unfinished great American novel (eye-roll emoji here). It was powerful for me to remember how anxiety inducing it can be to share your writing with other people. Often I think teachers forget this part because we aren’t sharing our writing and don’t have to feel the nerves and/or we forget the painful part of this practice because we’re so focused on the gains that sharing can have for a student. 

This simple practice increased our classroom community: we were all in the writing process together – writing, revising, sharing, receiving and giving feedback. Students were motivated to write more and in addition to what I was asking them to write in class – they brought in songs, poetry, narratives, a choose your own adventure, comics, satires, op-eds. Together, we enjoyed a wonderful season of writing for the sake of writing and sharing, for the most part, because we were proud of what we had written. 

When I moved to teaching only AP Lang, I moved away from author’s chair, mostly for timing reasons. There seemed to be so much to cover in AP and I was still getting my feet wet with the curriculum that I felt like I needed the time. In this moment of reflection for me, I’m realizing -again- that ultimately students just need to write, to write and to share -even when it doesn’t feel like there’s enough time.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently binging The Mandalorian with her three week old daughter – we’re both equally enthused. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

 

 

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?

A nonnegotiable in my classroom is that everyone is a writer. We work from day one of class to establish identities as writers: we create writer’s notebooks, we discuss writing routines, we practice writing every day.

But many of my students struggle to see themselves as writers because their definition of “a writer” is so narrow. They are beholden to culturally-entrenched images of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens–studious, quill-wielding, miserable, alcohol-fumed, slaves of the pen.

It takes some time to convince kids that despite the intrigue that persona presents, that it’s not true.

I recently encountered a strategy for defining authorship that I continue to return to for its simple brilliance. This school year, I’ve been visiting classrooms of practicing teachers, and one of my favorite places to visit is Gloria Kok’s classroom.

One of the first things that struck me upon entering her room was an entire wall devoted to writers. As I visited over multiple weeks, I realized that her students had created the five points of their working definition of what it means to be a writer. They had also brainstormed personal heroes who fit their definitions. The wall is covered with the likes of everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Oprah Winfrey to Langston Hughes to Tupac.

Frequently, Gloria asks students to use these points to frame their own writing reflections or goal statements. I’ve begun to do this myself, as I’ve visited her classroom so frequently–so much so that I’ve found myself seeking out definitions of what a writer is in my reading and work.

A favorite writing mentor of mine is Donald Murray, whose books I pick up anywhere I find them. I recently acquired Write to Learn, and one of my favorite and most personally relatable definitions of what it means to be a writer comes from his second chapter:

“Not knowing what I will write, or even if I can write, means I will not write what I have written before. I have begun a voyage of discovery. The initial satisfaction from writing is surprise: we say what we do not expect to say in a way we do not expect to say it.”

This approach to writing–that it is an inexpert art full of magic and whimsy, but helped along by the discipline of practice and study–is my personal favorite. The post-it notes papering my desk with quotes by Donald Murray attest to the similarities of our beliefs: these definitions help encourage, refocus, and discipline me on mornings when I do not want to sit down and write.

I encourage you to do the same thing with your students, writers, and even yourself: create a definition of what it means to be a writer. Put it down on paper, hang it on the walls, shout it from the rooftops–whatever works to teach yourself that your belief in yourself as a writer is what matters.

Shana Karnes is a writer who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her desk is covered with quotes about writing, pens, poems, abandoned coffee cups, and discarded crayons, stickers, and paint from her children. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Embrace the Chaos – How Getting Lost in a Corn Maze Brought Me Some Clarity

This past weekend, I found myself unexpectedly lost. An innocent trip to the pumpkin farm to enjoy a beautiful fall day in Wisconsin quickly deteriorated to a literal Children of the Corn situation as my six-year-old and I spent almost 45 minutes lost in a corn maze. It was a maze of maise, as it were, and the two of us were no match for its twists, turns, or other cleverly landscaped stalks of doom.

As our enthusiasm for our new adventure began to wane, my panic level began to rise. It was no surprise that my daughter needed to go to the bathroom. It was no surprise that we hadn’t had lunch yet and were both starving. It was no surprise that the stalks of corn kept thwapping me in the face. I started having visions that we might be stuck in there for quite a while. What if it started to get dark? What if we turned in circles for hours and couldn’t find the entrance or the exit? What if the mini donut stand closed before I could make my way out?

In desperation, I texted my husband. Using some inappropriate words, I conveyed how disappointed I was that I had thought this would be a good idea and that I was getting sincerely scared about how long it would take us to find our way out. Thus far, my daughter and I had been rather innocently complaining about wanting to be done. Thankfully she hadn’t caught on yet to my growing concern about our situation.

A few moments later, we passed a young couple, headed the opposite direction. Trying to defuse tension with humor, as I often do, I smiled brightly and quipped, “Been in here long? Feels like we may have to spend the night in a corn field!”

“Yeah, we’re sort of stuck too,” the woman replied with a sigh. “We’ve been in here almost 90 minutes.”

***Insert Awkward Fake Laughter Here***

As my panic reached a fever pitch, a text came in from my husband.

“There’s no shame in just walking out the side…”

There might not be shame…but there’s a bit of fear for sure.

What if I pull my daughter off the path and into the corn only to lose my bearings completely? What if we walk toward a landmark that just happens to be in the middle of more corn? What if I have to utter the word “corn” one more time and I lose my mind?

Speaking of losing one’s mind. How’s the start of hour school year been for you? (Nice segway, hmmm?) If it’s anything like mine, there is a very thin line between the enthusiasm of this beautiful fresh start, and the disorienting chaos of being lost in the middle of what is indeed familiar, but no less overwhelming. 30 freshman (13 of whom have professed to hate reading. Hate.), will do that to a person. And that’s just one period.

Split lunch makes for quite the scene

But short of diving for the exits (or the pandemonium of a course forward without a path) what’s a passionate educator to do?

  • Routines – Remember to fall back on the routines of workshop when in doubt. When the crazy of homecoming week has your students climbing the wall, starting the class with 15 minutes of silent reading is not only beneficial, but a soothing balm of calm. I don’t compromise on this time – ever. We read no matter what and we read because no matter what, it’s one of the most important things we do. It gives my students time to change the crazy, amped up rhythm of their day, it gives me time to confer with kids, and it sets the tone for the whole class period of learning. Chaos be gone (eventually, as freshmen are still learning this quiet skill).
  • Build relationships – When I take some time to reflect on what’s causing me anxiety in the classroom, it is rarely the students. It’s the grading, the planning, the politics, the meetings, the everything that takes my time away from getting to know my students. So, when I’m struggling (this time it just happened to be in a field of corn), I try to remind myself that knowing my kids (academically and personally) makes all the difference. We can get through the tough together when we’ve established a connection as a class that makes us a community. When that community is focused on building readers and writers, all the better.
  • Self Care – I texted the Three Teachers last night with a bit of a plea/cop-out/desperate cry for help. I wasn’t sure I could post today. Last week saw PD on Monday, a department meeting Tuesday, School Improvement Team time out of the classroom on Wednesday, English Department Review Thursday morning (also out of the classroom) and PLC on Thursday afternoon. Then I got lost in corn. I’m behind and feeling disconnected from my kids. Amy’s simple advice “Self care, self care, self care” reminded me of a very important fact. One, I’m not alone in this treading water scenario and that brings some comfort. Often, in panic, we feel very isolated. In the community of educators, however, there is a lot of support for the over-committed, overtired, over-stimulated teacher. Instead of wallowing in it though, the mindful practice of self care and acknowledgment of our feelings can go far in helping us seek the balance we need.

In these reminders, there is nothing new. And in that, should be the calm in the chaos we all need. When the rows of corn feel stacked against you, choose a path and head in one reassuring direction. You will emerge. You will be in one piece. You will avoid corn mazes from now on, but in terms of the analogy…you’ll have come out the other side with a new appreciation for seeking the type of calm that can positively impact your day, your teaching, and your sanity.


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her – Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

Disturbing My Beliefs

Okay, reader, I have a challenge for you before you read this blog. If you were to read a student’s IEP and learned that he had been diagnosed with all of the following, what would be your first thoughts?

  • Chronic anxiety
  • Obsessive compulsive thinking
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Depression

 Really, don’t read any further until you’ve thought about teaching this student. How would you plan for him? If you were to predict his future, what would your prediction be?

Now read on.


I’m not sure when I ran across Peter Smagorinsky’s work, but I’m guessing it was sometime in the 80s while studying writing pedagogy, and for literally decades his writing has influenced me. So it was quite a shock when I encountered an article by him in Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled column. Writing about the “mentally ill,” he explains:

In fact, I am among them, as are several people in my family. Various people in my gene pool have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive thinking, oppositional-defiance, and other conditions. I suspect that many readers can say the same.

Reading this sent me into the research mode. From his vita, I discovered that he has Screen Shot 2019-10-02 at 11.55.53 AMwritten or co-written over 15 books and a ridiculous number of articles for professional journals, has been honored with numerous awards, and currently holds the title of Distinguished Research Professor of English Education.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you knew you needed to rethink an assumption that you didn’t even know you held? An assumption that carries serious implications for a sound readers/writers workshop? That’s what happened to me. All too clearly I recall in the past saying something like, “For a special ed kiddo, he’s doing okay.” Or – I confess this with great embarrassment – “I’ll cut him some slack. After all, he is in special ed.” And as a consultant, I don’t know how many times I nodded in empathy with a teacher when she talked about low test scores and all of “those” students or I indicated my understanding when the teacher said, “Oh, she has an IEP. Of course, she’s struggling.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about beliefs lately, and Peter’s story has stirred up beliefs that lay dormant, beliefs that I hadn’t examined. My discomfort reminded me of what Margaret Wheatley describes in her essay “Willing to be Disturbed.”

DisturbedLately, I’ve been listening for what surprises me. What did I just hear that startled me? This isn’t easy-I’m accustomed to sitting there nodding my head to those saying things I agree with. But when I notice what surprises me, I’m able to see my own views more clearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.

And Peter’s column dredged up assumptions that I would have denied. For years, I’ve argued for thinking of kids from an asset perspective, but buried deep within me reigned a deficit orientation.

As I kept reading more of Peter’s writing, I encountered his push for neurodiversity in which teachers recognize that there is a range of neurological orientations and, therefore, it’s important to “foreground potential, not disorder.” Peter argues:

Rather, I think that I follow a different order, like many who share my classifications. In fact, it’s quite ordered. There probably is no more ordered way of being than to live on the autism spectrum. It’s a life of pattern, ritual, and clarity of purpose. The problem is that those purposes can seem odd to those who believe that having a narrow or unusual way of being in the world is a problem to be fixed, a sickness to be cured.

Looking at more of his writing, some in blogs and some in academic essays, I found provocative gems such as these:

  • “My ability to complete work quickly and efficiently is, I believe, a consequence of having Asperger’s in conjunction with OCD.”
  • “As part of my rebellion against … stereotype, I have begun referring to my Asperger’s Advantage, especially when Asperger’s is bundled with my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thinking.”

In one essay, he credits Tourette’s for his prodigious writing career, explaining that when he reads, he picks at his nails and goes into endless tapping routines, but writing channels his nervous tics into productive and satisfying work.

What if I had viewed my students with “special” needs – just think of the condescending tone of that phrase – as seeing the world differently and my job was to figure out their strengths and ways I could build from those strengths? My buried beliefs were madly disconnected from my espoused beliefs.

Yes, Peter disturbed me, surfaced my beliefs, and challenged my assumptions. And the troubling question is: what other negative beliefs are tucked away, needing to be disturbed?

For over 25 years, Stevi Quate taught middle and high school English in Colorado. Even though she no longer has her own classroom, she is in classrooms throughout the US and internationally. Currently, she consults in international schools and with Public Education and Business Coalition. When she’s home, she’s playing with her dogs, reading in her backyard, and realigning her beliefs. Follow her: @steviq

 

 

 

 

Hamilton or Burr?

If I hooked you with the Hamilton reference, YAY! But…there’s about four paragraphs before we get there, so here’s Weird Al performing a Hamilton medley.

We all know how important feedback is. And we all also know how much feedback we’re both getting and giving to students during every interaction: that sigh from the corner of the room, the eye roll at particularly bad puns, the way “That’s interesting” can be both a positive and negative for a student who volunteers in a class discussion, and the slump back into the seat as they try to figure out which one. We’re inundated in feedback, both coming to us and leaving us. Not to mention all the grading and conferencing and the feedback that comes with each of those. 

It’s a lot. 

So, to help make that feedback more focused for me and more reflective for my students, I ask them to complete a weekly feedback every Friday. Essentially, they answer the same three questions every week: what were your positives this week, what would you like more opportunities with, is there anything else I need to know. I particularly like the last question as it creates a place for students to show me a little of themselves as people and academics. 

My favorite response this week:  “In terms of my opinions, I am an Aaron Burr. (Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for). I’d like to be at least a little bit more of a Hamilton, and I foresee your class providing an excellent opportunity for that growth.” 

Besides the Hamilton reference, I love the blunt honesty in this remark; she may already be more of a Hamilton than she knows. We often talk about current events and politics in our AP Lang class; of course, that could be uncomfortable for some for a variety of reasons. AP is at its core an argument class, so students are constantly asked to assume positions and defend them – sometimes with more zest and fervor than others. 

I appreciated the reminder that this practice/habit of argumentation can be scary or intimidating for some students or that they might not want to wade into the difficult or uncomfortable conversations in front of their peers, or right after that chem test, or in a place where their ideas may not stay inside the walls of the classroom or when they’re using the space to figure out what they actually think and why they think that way. So while this particular student might want to work to be a Hamilton – I’m betting I have a lot of Burrs sitting in my classroom. 

So what to do about it? 

I think it might be time to bring in an old favorite: Margaret Wheatley’s Willing to be Disturbed. Ultimately, a student’s comfort level with discussion and argumentation are directly related to classroom culture and that’s on me and my students to create. Maybe we can come to a place where we realize, as Wheatley says, “There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are joined by our human hearts.” 

close up photo of book pages

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently watching the new Jack Ryan series and realizing it would be so much better if Krasinski and Pierce were just going through the plot of Jack Ryan but as their characters from The Office and The Wire respectively. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

Hope Thrives in Courage

Today is the third Friday with my senior English students. Yep, I did it. I’m back in the classroom, learning alongside some amazing young people.

I have a billion goals for myself — enough to weigh me down, certainly — but one that keeps floating to the top is this:  Thrive in hope. (Yeah, I don’t really know if that’s a goal, but stay with me here.)

When I left the classroom two years ago, I’d lost a lot of it. Personal struggles. Professional struggles. The state of the world struggles. All of it. But lots of self-reflection, rest, writing, paint, dirt, good friends, family, and growing things –probably most of all growing things — changed me. My hope is back. It’s thriving, just like the plants that add energy and life to my home and my new classroom.

And while I teach literacy skills to seniors in high school, what I really want to teach is hope. Hope in humanity and our ability to thrive — together and as individuals.

So, like you, I’ve started with relationships. Every text we’ve read together, every task WritingBesideDwyaneWadeI’ve asked students to complete, every book I’ve matched to a reader’s interest has given me insight into who these young people are as individuals with backgrounds, cultures, fears, failures, dreams and desires. Just like me, they cling and pounce and clamor after hope.

A few years ago, after a sniper killed five police officers in downtown Dallas, I read this commentary by Chequan Lewis. The last line still resonates: “My sights are simply set on what is possible when we are courageously human.”

Courageously human. That’s what I want for myself and for my students — to practice courage as a means of becoming better than we were when we walked in the door. So moving forward into senior English plans, I’ll invite students to step into the vulnerable spaces that require courage: reading texts that challenge the status quo, writing honestly about ourselves, our learning, controversies, and convictions; and communicating in ways that validate, clarify, empathize, and challenge.

I’ll step there, too, because the more I think about it:  Hope thrives in courage.

Here’s a few of the texts we’ve used thus far to write beside and spark our thinking on this journey. Perhaps you’ll find them useful as you begin your own.

My Honest Poem by Rudy Francisco

Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye; the poem here

“This Bud’s for 3” — Dwyane Wade

If you have ideas for more resources that fit our theme, please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches seniors at a large high school in North Texas. She’s a #houseplantcollector, writer, reader, gardener, watercolor-artist wannabe, bicyclist, and grandmother to eight courageous little people, the newest little man born today! Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

We Contain Multitudes

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Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

About two months ago, I found myself crying in the maternity section of Target mere hours before a flight on Sunday to the AP Reading in Tampa. My bags were unpacked, the clock was ticking, and I was sobbing under the harsh fluorescent lighting, lost in a part of the store – a whole genre of clothing – I knew nothing about. 

See, about three months pregnant, I’d finally run up against the inevitable clothing wall. Nothing I owned was comfortable any more; I was hoping to squeeze (literally) a few more weeks out of my clothes before I had to shop for new ones. After realizing that I still hadn’t packed at nine and then realizing that everything was awful and miserable around ten, I found myself an hour later in the clearance section of Target trying to find something cheap that could last me for a few weeks. 

Extra smalls as far as the eye could see. Not what I needed. 

I asked the worker on duty for help; she suggested I shop in the maternity section “even though you’re obviously not pregnant.” That comment broke me. I’m not a crier or one for public displays of any emotion beyond the Snoopy Dance, but there I was. Crying. In. A. Target. 

Over clothes. 

I bought my maternity pants and went home, determined to put the whole night behind me.

But I couldn’t. Days later, I realized what bothered me so much about the interaction: I was pregnant. I was, AM, lucky enough to experience a part of life that not every one else can. I was so thankful and excited about this journey that very few people knew about at that point. And I wanted people to know, to recognize and acknowledge that something really, really neat was going on – completely on its own, seemingly separate from my conscious self. 

In short, I wanted all that was going on inside of me to be made manifest to the outside world; I wanted my inside self to be obviously reflected in my outside self. In the moment – right or wrong – I felt robbed of understanding, or acknowledgement, of something that had become essential to my sense of self. Big feelings for what, ultimately, was such a small moment.  

I’ve been waiting to write this blog post since then.

This experience has stayed with me all summer as I planned for the school year; as with almost everything in my life I tried to apply this thinking to my classroom and found a fresh reminder that often so much happens under the surface or behind the scenes for my students that I may not see or know about. I wonder how many students have sat in my class, struggling because they know what they want to say, but can’t quite figure out how to say it. Maybe they wished they could just write an idea out instead of vocalizing it. I wonder how many times what’s going on inside of them longs to be made unmistakably apparent to the outside world. I wonder if in those moments they feel as frustrated or overwhelmed or alone as I did in Target.

I hope not, but I’m betting some do.

“What is your why?” This simple question is one the blog has posed before, and I love finding a why for my year every August. In addition to my why for this year, I want to remember in my instruction, my grading, my conversations, my interactions with students that they, like Whitman said, “are large … and contain multitudes” even when, especially when, those multitudes aren’t readily visible.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently reading The Shallows and suggests you read it too. Annoy (err…I mean, share joyfully with) all of your friends the interesting ways the internet is changing our society, whether they want to hear it or not! She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

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